Articles About Tibetan Thangka Painting - index:

An Introduction to Tibetan Thangka Painting

What is a Thangka?

Female Deities In Tibetan Buddhism

Green Tara and the Twenty-one Taras

The Mandala And Its Symbolism

Wrathful Deities of the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon

The Wheel Of Life

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Wrathful Deities of the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon

   Many of the wrathful deities in Tibetan tantric Buddhism are more obscure than the commonly seen peaceful figures of the buddhas, bodhisattvas and the female deities. Nevertheless they form an important part of Buddhist practice and are linked with the need to understand the subconscious mind and to integrate and transform the deeper emotions, which arise within human experience. The wrathful figures are many and diverse; they are sometimes depicted in paintings using the Tsal Tang (gold on a dark red background) and Nak Tang (gold on a black background) techniques as well as in the usual Chutson Tang (multicoloured paintings). Many of the wrathful deities are in fact wrathful forms of well-known peaceful deities and others exist in their own right, there also exist 'semi-wrathful' deities. The figures have in common a form which often awakens deep-seated fears, as they contain images which are associated with death and violent physical suffering, with the purpose for the Buddhist practitioner of examining the innermost nature of the human mind and realising the true perception of reality.

Knowing these facts it is therefore not surprising that the images are often kept hidden and revealed only in a ritual space and for those people ready to engage in deep self-transformation. These "dark" figures exist to help us realise that the difficult or frightening experiences, that we are inclined to avoid, are a valuable part of existence because they provide us with the opportunities to grow beyond our perceived limitations.

Dharmapalas - the Wrathful Deities, protectors of the Dharma (teachings): The depiction of the Dharmapalas in their typical alidha posture (standing warrior-like with stocky, muscular bodies, roaring mouths, flaming faces and bulging eyes) has developed over many centuries and includes strong influences from the Indian Bhairava iconography and Chinese images of guardians and demons. The most well-known is the wrathful form of Vajrapani, the Protector of the Tantras, who is dark blue in colour; this colour is said to have come from his drinking poison and also represents the "truth body" or permanent aspect of the mind. Vajrapani holds a thunderbolt or "diamond sceptre" with which he is said to have smashed a giant boulder that was thrown at the Buddha in jealousy. Vajrapani embodies the power of having a clear view of reality, which can turn around a chaotic, painful experience through enlightened positive action into benefits for oneself and others. He demonstrates the mastery of all negative forces and the combination of wisdom and compassion resulting in the ability to choose the right path of action for any situation without hesitation.

Some of the deities have multiple pairs of arms holding various weapons, which have symbolic significance regarding protection of the Buddhist practitioner and the removal of obstacles for those on the spiritual path. Another of the more prominent wrathful figures is Mahakala, the "Great Black One" who is the wrathful form of Avalokiteshvara the buddha of compassion, and who also appears in various coloured forms with two, four or six arms. The form usually seen is the six-armed black or dark-blue form, which embodies the power of compassion in destroying ignorant states of mind. Another is the Black Manjusri, who is the embodiment of wisdom, appearing to show the realisation of the emptiness of all phenomena, through ruthless removal of the wrong view of reality.

Perhaps the most striking image in the whole of the Buddhist pantheon is the truly fearsome-looking Yamantaka (the "Destroyer of Death"), also a form of Manjusri, who appears in the form of a huge, blue being with the head of a buffalo, with thirty-four arms and sixteen legs. Yamantaka (Tib: Dorje encourages us to open ourselves to the experience of suffering in order to release our minds from fear and grasping; his naked body and erect phallus symbolise respectively the abandonment of self-image and a constant state of bliss. With his nine faces showing the nine categories of scriptures, he stands triumphantly on eight animals and eight birds, which represent his attainment of the eight accomplishments and eight uncommon accomplishments, these are the abilities to transcend all physical limitations in order to apply the direct knowledge of Ultimate Truth.

The story of his first appearance begins with a yogi entering a cave to practice meditation. The yogi transcended his body and was communicating with beings in the Otherworld, when suddenly a group of poachers carried a buffalo into the cave to cut it up. When they saw the yogi sitting there as a possible witness to their crime, they cut off his head. He then came back into his body to find himself headless and felt around on the ground only to find the buffalo's head which he then put on to his body. He then became enraged and rampaged through the villages with a butcher's knife, in a search for his missing head. The villagers prayed to Manjusri to save them and he soon came in the form of Yamantaka, also with a buffalo's head, to subdue the out-of-control yogi. The yogi was then empowered to harness his anger as a means for liberation and he became a protector known as Dharmaraja, "King of the Dharma", who protects practitioners from both inner and outer opposition forces and binds them to the realisation of the true nature of reality.

Of all of the female wrathful deities the image of Sri Devi (Tib: Palden Lhamo) is the most memorable. She is the wrathful aspect of Green Tara, the goddess of active compassion, and her name means "Auspicious Goddess Mother", also known as the "Supreme Conqueror of Enemies". She is dark blue with a terrifying face and she rides a yellow mule over a sea of blood, symbolising her ability to protect a practitioner from the sea of life's miseries and disasters. The painting is fascinating, especially because it uses some symbols which are not seen in other paintings, for example the five magical weapons she carries: A bag of diseases, a book of curses, dice showing the power of divination, balls of thread to trap evil spirits and a cross-stick to record her slain demonic enemies. She also carries an umbrella of peacock feathers representing divine pride and she wears the ornaments of both peaceful and wrathful deities, with the Heruka belt and dharma wheel at her heart showing her universal spiritual attainment. She is depicted flanked by both the wrathful dakini queens of the sea and of the earth showing her power and influence over all realms and she has a vast retinue of queens and goddesses. The practice associated with this goddess is of particular relevance to the Dalai Lama, who travels with a painting of her and for whom she is a special protectress. She is invoked to bring peace during tantric rituals, embodying the powers to pacify the hindering forces, which keep us bound in mundane existence. To summarize, the wrathful deities in Tibetan Buddhism are best seen as archetypes invoked to enable the removal of obstacles to enlightenment.  

by Peter "Zotec" Newman, Cumbria, England ©2002-2009


Singer & Denwood - "Tibetan Art, towards a definition of style", Laurence King. [p.204]

Vessantara - "Meeting the Buddhas", Windhorse Publications. [pp.160-3, 293 -308]

Landaw, J. & Weber, A. - "Images of Enlightenment", Snow Lion. [pp.124-5, 148]

Li Jicheng - "The Realm of Tibetan Buddhism" Foreign Languages Press, Beijing [pp.156-8]

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All articles © Zotec 2002-2009